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Adaptive Technology Careers

Could this be the perfect field for you?

By John Edwards

Technology is often lauded for its ability to entertain people or help businesses function more efficiently and productively. But few electronic products are more treasured than the adaptive technologies that help people with physical or mental disabilities live happier, more productive lives.

Adaptive technology is hardware and software that helps people who have difficulty accessing information systems using conventional methods. For example, individuals with only a small range of hand movement can use mini-keyboards, while people who are blind can use audible screen readers.

Many of the people who work at adaptive technology companies believe that their work is as much a calling as a means to a livelihood. So it is with Bryan Moulton, research and development director for DynaVox Systems, a Pittsburgh-based company that creates augmentive and alternative communication tools for people with severe speech disabilities. "Most people who spend any significant time working in this field fall in love with it," says Moulton. "It can draw you in and capture your attention."

Moulton, who holds a B.S. in aerospace engineering from Purdue University and an M.S. in electrical engineering from the University of Buffalo, says his goal in life is to create technologies that help people. After earning his M.S., Moulton and a partner co-founded Enkidu Research, a company that specialized in augmentative and alternative communications. Enkidu merged with DynaVox earlier this year, and Moulton is now continuing his research at his former competitor. "This career path was a direct result of my desire to be active in meaningful research that could be rapidly applied in real world products and services," he says. "I enjoy my work a great deal."

Many Tools, Many Abilities

Adaptive technologies includes a wide range of devices that are designed to meet the needs of many different types of people. Some products aim to help visually impaired people function within a visually oriented world. Other tools aim to assist people with hearing, speech, motor, cognitive, or other types of physical or mental challenges.

Developing these products requires people with skills in many different areas. "We have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and software engineers on staff doing research and development," says John Gardner, president of ViewPlus Technologies, a Corvallis, Ore.-based company that develops Braille embossing printers and related technologies.

Less than 20 years ago, Gardner was working as a physics professor at Oregon State University. In 1988, at age 48, complications from glaucoma left him totally blind. About a year after he lost his sight, a $30,000 National Science Foundation grant set him on the road toward founding ViewPlus. Gardner used the grant money to develop the Tiger Tactile Graphics Embosser, a device that prints Braille, mathematical symbols and graphs.

Before Tiger, the only printer available for the blind used sticky, easily damaged wax to print letters and numbers. Gardner's printers allow the blind to hold and manipulate documents in the same ways sighted people do. "ViewPlus' vision is to create and market innovative technologies, permitting people with print disabilities good access to complex information," says Gardner.

ViewPlus hires grads with "intelligence, determination and attention to detail," Gardner adds. "We need bright engineers or scientists. Thus far, we've been able to recruit excellent employees."

People choose to work for ViewPlus for reasons that extend beyond personal satisfaction, including career growth and the ability to investigate cutting edge technologies. "This is a good career for the same reasons that any engineering job is a good career," says Gardner. "In addition, ViewPlus is a company that our employees are proud to work for-it's a 'feel good' company." Most of all, Gardner is adamant that his business not be categorized as a type of specialty firm. "We are a mainstream company whose mission is making technologies permitting all people access to mainstream information," he says.

Skills in Context

Grads planning to work at a company producing adaptive technologies should expect to combine their technical knowledge with human empathy. "Technology skills must be exercised in the context of our unique relationship with the customer," says Moulton. "If you just want to work with technology, then this field perhaps isn't a place where you can blossom," he observes. "However, if you want to find a human application for technological solutions, then this may be a good place to practice your skill."

The talents required for work in the adaptive technologies industry vary widely between companies. At virtually all firms, however, employees are expected to possess flexibility in their abilities as well as a willingness to think imaginatively.

"Whether it be programming in a high-level language like C++, or developing on a board level in assembly, IT students should become comfortable with existing in a variety of specialties and working in a multidisciplinary role," says Moulton.

While working for an adaptive technologies company can be greatly rewarding, it can also sometimes generate a great deal of frustration. "The field is fraught with challenges," Moulton explains. "Technology can be fickle and the social systems that are used for funding can be antiquated and frustrating." Plus, sometimes, even one's best effort simply isn't enough. "Despite your desire to provide it, there is no silver bullet solution for the vast majority of the customers," he adds.

Still, for grads who feel that they want to make a difference, it's hard to think of a more satisfying career than adaptive technologies. "The hopes and dreams of those working in this field drive its progress," says Moulton. "This field may test an individual's resolve, but if one succeeds in one's journey the rewards are beyond measure."

John Edwards is a technology writer based near Phoenix. His work has appeared in CIO Magazine, Wireless Week, Mobile Computing, IEEE Computer and numerous other publications.

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Articles > Wired Outlook